It’s a sunny morning as I walk beside a favourite wetland, binoculars in hand, looking for interesting birds. Suddenly, a startled duck lifts off the pond. I glance quickly. ‘Oh, it’s just a mallard’ I say, a common bird I can see by the dozen any day of the year. I quickly forget it and continue my walk.
But in that reflexive naming and dismissing of the familiar, I didn’t appreciate the glossy green of the head shining in the sun, the flash of deep blue like in the wing as it took to the air, or the water droplets falling like diamonds off the bright orange legs back into the pond. Nor was I noticing the warm spring air on my face, or the smell of the wetland waking up after a long winter’s freeze.
As a bird watcher, I have learned to focus my attention to pick up small details to help me quickly identify a bird. Be it the shape of a head, a flash of colour in the wing, or a musical call from the shrubbery, all these little pieces can help me quickly sort a warbler from a sparrow, a mallard from a grebe, an eagle from a raven. The brain’s ability to notice, identify and name patterns, and then decide what is important to pay attention to is a valuable skill. It is a skill that has allowed the human species to evolve and survive. Unfortunately, the unconscious habitual nature of this process can rob us of being truly aware and present in the moment. What can be wondrous or magical becomes commonplace and easily overlooked.
Let’s look at this another way. What if I described a rare and beautiful bird. One whose velvety black feathers shimmer with iridescent violets and greens. One who has rows of white arrowhead markings running the length of its body. One whose wing feathers are outlined with a deep orange-brown. One, who when it flies with a thousand others of its kind, can move and dance through the skies as one, creating a swirling symphony of movement. Would you be interested in seeing such a bird? Would you be curious to travel to the exotic country where it can be found? Actually, you don’t have to travel far. You probably see it every day.
The European Starling is a bird that is much-maligned in North America. Abundant in cities and towns alike, their less than musical call and their habit of outcompeting local birds has made them high on many people’s hate list. ‘Damn starlings’ I’ll here people say. But if we can stop to look without leaping to the reflexive response, we may see the Starling in a very different light.
Mindfulness is a practice that teaches us to be fully present and aware in each moment. We learn to watch what happens in our minds as it is happening. By seeing how our conditioned patterns and responses work, we can move our experiencing out of dull habitual reactions into active aware experiencing. We can practice this in everything we do, including our bird watching. And as we do, we can learn that what we overlook, what we call common or uninteresting, can actually be magical and wondrous, every single moment.
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